The Rev.Steph Brown is used to juggling. She’s the pastor of three Methodist churches in Cortland County and a mentor for an emerging pastor at a Seneca Lake church.
“I am used to being busy,” said the 60 year old Virgil woman. “I would have it no other way.”
Brown is like many leaders today, having a number of churches under her guidance. She oversees a flock of about 275 in the four churches together.
“You just hope they don’t get sick all at once,” she said.
The SUNY Cortland graduate in chemistry and education turned to pastoring in mid life. She used to be the department head for loss prevention and safety for Hess Oil in New Jersey, where she worked for 34 years.
Today, she is pastor of Homer Avenue Methodist Church in Cortland, pastor of Virgil United Methodist Church in Virgil and coordinating pastor of Harmony United Methodist Church in Harford.
She doesn’t have to go and preach in Harford. “I step in and assist as needed … I’m there for pastoral emergencies, for baptisms and things like that.”
She’s also mentoring a local candidate for a pastor at Reynoldsville United Methodist Church on Seneca Lake.
“I meet with him a couple of times a month,” she said.
She’ll consecrate the bread and the wine for communion while there.
This is Brown’s eleventh year as a pastor.
“I don’t find it to be challenging. I find it to be rewarding and being uplifted.”
“With so many things going on, so many irons in the fire, I have to tap into (resources with people). It’s good to see people step up their activity.”
She doesn’t want people to come to church on a Sunday and sit and listen. “We want people engaged,” she said.
Being a pastor has been a job she always felt called to do.
“For 25 years, I kept ignoring it. That’s not for me. That’s not for me. That’s not for me.”
“With age comes wisdom. If you have calls on your heart for years, you should listen to it, rather than do what you think you are good at. There’s a difference in being comfortable to stepping out and doing something you felt called to do.”
“I went to seminary school while working in the head office in New Jersey. While down there, I was pastoring a church half time.”
She was full time at Hess, a full-time student at Drew Theological School, and a pastor half time at a Methodist church.
As the population of Americans that regularly attend church has decreased, the number of pastors serving multiple churches has increased, Brown said.
She pointed to the cavernous church sanctuary at Homer Avenue Methodist Church.
“As you can see looking at this church, there was a time when the upstairs and downstairs was packed on a Sunday. That’s not true of any denomination in this day and age.”
There are a number of reasons, she said. Family dynamics have changed. It used to be mom and dad went to church and brought the kids with them.
Parents are working or have Sunday commitments. If the kids play sports, they play tournaments, and that happens on Sundays.
“The most common thing you see is grandparents bringing their grandkids to church,” she said.
“That’s why as a pastor, you have to be very creative of coming up with different ways of offering sermons. The traditional Sunday morning in the pew is not happening.”
Brown does one sermon a week and shares it with Homer Ave. Methodist and Virgil United Methodist listeners.
“It takes a significant amount of time to do one sermon per week,” she said. “Especially this week. I had two funerals Thursday, Sunday and Monday. I’ve averaged a funeral a week the last four weeks,” she said in December.
She does the church service 9:30 a.m. in Virgil and 11 a.m. at Homer Avenue Methodist church.
Harmony United has three or four people who can do the sermon, a lay leader or retired deacon, she said.
She works to find a message that will uplift.
“They need something they can hang on to, leave with, ‘this is what I can work on this week.’”
Hospital visits are part of the job and she’s been to hospitals in Binghamton, Syracuse, Ithaca and even Rochester, as well as Cortland. She also visits people in nursing homes.
“I take communion in once a month to folks in nursing homes,” she said.
She leads a Bible study and small group workshops on topics, how to make a good disciple, for instance. She is also involved with a teen group at Virgil UMC that she’s proud of growing.
The Rev. Joseph Zareski, a Catholic minister, oversees St. Mary’s Church, St. Anthony’s Church and St. Mary’s School. A priest for 40 years, he’s been pastoring two flocks in Cortland for six years.
“I was down in Norwich for three years and I had two parishes there, too.”
He is fortunate to have a priest, Father Nathan Brooks, who was ordained in June, to help him.
He had the help of another priest before that and before that, Zareski worked alone for three years.
“We do have a shortage of priests,” he said. “We still have the church that we need to tend to. When you don’t have as many people, you are given more responsibility.”
He says his job in both churches in Cortland is “fulfilling.”
“You get to minister to more people. Every parish is different. The customs are different. The experience I have had at Cortland and Norwich were good ones. Everyone has to help out within the diocese.”
St. Mary’s Church on North Main Street has 1,300 families. St. Anthony’s on Pomeroy Street has 300 to 325, he said.
Before he came to Cortland, he had a church in Utica that had 2,000 families.
He asks for help when he needs it. But both parishes know what the needs are and step forward to fulfill them, he said.
“I want people to know we are very open to people coming to both churches to worship. Both parishes try to be open to helping people. … We are here to help. We are here to be of service.”
“Common needs are always there — someone to guide them. To help them in times of need: funerals, weddings. Baptisms.”
“You just know you have to do your best,” Zareski said.
“I want people to know that even though society has changed, having a faith journey is still of utmost importance,” said Brown. “Even though there are things going on in that world that appear that God has turned his back on us, that’s not it at all. If you invite God into you life, the result is astronomical.”
Brown needs a strong youth base, people willing to uses their talents to lead small groups and people not afraid to try new things.
Back in September, the Homer Avenue church hosted a Football Sunday. Cortland High’s Coach Pete Reif, his assistants and 15 football players came to the service. The sermon was on team work and there was special tailgate food afterward. Members brought enough food to feed an army.
“Everyone said, ‘Thank you for inviting us …’ One young man said he really enjoyed it. It was his first time in a church,” Brown said.
More events are planned.
“With a changing society, a changing culture, if you keep doing what you did 50 years ago, it’s not going to work. Millennials need to see a church that will work for them. … You have to have an openness, to embrace the community that your church is in,” Brown said.